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Edward Snowden, Right or Wrong ?

Edward Snowden, Right or Wrong?


Harding (2014) at the Guardian Newspaper reports that in 2013 Edward Snowden was a contractor working at the National Security Agency (NSA) in the United States of America on behalf of Booz Allen Hamilton consulting firm. Harding reports that on May 30th 2013 Snowden flew to Hong Kong where he met with Laura Poitras, Glen Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill and handed over thousands of documents on USB drives. Greenwald (2014) published a selection of these documents through the Guardian Newspaper revealing to the world the extent to which the NSA had been gathering information on their own citizens and intercepting worldwide communications. During Glenn Greenwald’s early interviews with Edward Snowden Greenwald felt he had got to the bottom of Snowden’s reasons for his betrayal of the NSA’s trust. Greenwald recounts Snowden’s reply to his question regarding why:

‘The true measurement of a person’s worth isn’t what they say they believe in, but what they do in defence of those beliefs’ (Snowden, 2013, quoted in Greenwald 2014)

Snowden’s decision to reveal these documents, which showed the massive misuse of laws to secretly gather information, focused unprecedented attention on privacy intrusions and lead to global debates. Due to the release of these classified and secret documents the United States Government (2013) filed a criminal complaint against Snowden citing theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defence information and wilful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person.

The 1917 Espionage act (1917) covers the last two charges and by filing a criminal complaint the Washington Post (2013) speculates that this provided prosecutors with a legal basis in which to ask for extradition of Snowden from the Hong Kong authorities. However, due to the political nature of Snowden’s actions the Washington post argues that it could be many months before any agreement could be reached between the US and Hong Kong. In any event, Snowden managed to escape to Russia and has been given temporary asylum by the Russian authorities. Poitras (CitizenFour, 2014) filmed the meetings in Hong Kong and Snowden’s escape to Russia where he is now in exile. The film also shows part of the German government’s investigation into the evidence released by these documents detailing the extent of the spying on Germany.

According to the Deputy director of the NSA, Richard Ledgett (2014), Snowden had plenty of opportunities to air his concerns through official channels and argues that the actions that Snowden took put lots of people’s lives at risk and provided enemies with knowledge of the NSA’s capabilities. In their review of The Whistle-Blower Protection Act (WPA) (1989) Shimabukuro and Whitaker (2012, pp.15-16) explain that a case must contain three elements for a person to fall under the WPA’s protection. That is that no “personnel action” can be taken against a “covered employee” because of a “protected disclosure”. Where, a personnel action is classed as any form of reprisal, a Protected Disclosure is any disclosure that evidences a violation of any rule, law or regulation or gross mismanagement, and a covered employee is classed as a current employee, former employee or applicants to certain areas of government.  It is interesting to note that Shimabukuro and Whitaker (2012, pp.15-16) identify that the Central Intelligence agency (CIA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) are government agencies that are exempt from this Act. Snowden was sub-contracted to the CIA and therefore in most likelihood is not covered by the WPA for two reasons, firstly he is not actually a government employee and secondly he is working for an agency that the WPA does not cover.

Snowden (2014) counter argues that as a contractor the legitimate avenues that Ledgett proposes were not open to him and it would seem that Shimabukuro and Whitaker’s  (2012, pp.15-16) review of the WPA act backs him up on this. Snowden continues to argue that the American administration have a poor track record where whistle-blowers are concerned pointing to examples such as Thomas Drake (2016) and John Crane (2016). Snowden underlines that as he had found the flaw was approved by all three branches of the government there was no unbiased authority to which he could air his concerns. Snowden (2014) points out that he did try to bring his concerns to the relevant authorities but as he was only a contractor there were much fewer avenues than that of the permanent staff. Snowden makes the point that he did send out emails and discussed the issues with his peers. Ledgett (2014), disagrees and states that no emails can be found that were sent from Snowden stating his discomfort at the NSA operations to any of his managers.

One of arguably the most famous whistle-blowers is Chelsea Manning, a United States army soldier convicted of violations against the Espionage Act and sentenced to 35 years’ imprisonment in 2013. In 2010 she released classified documents to WikiLeaks detailing the US’s plans, actions and outcomes of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  According to Chelsea Manning’s (2013) statement her increasing disillusionment and outrage with American foreign policy and the “bloodlust” of Apache pilots made her want to give the general public access to this information so that they would also see the negative effects of these wars. Unlike Snowden it seems Manning had no plan of escape from justice and seemed unaware of the forces that would be unleashed against her when she confided to one of her peers as to what she had done. Ricks  (2013) states that in his opinion Manning’s actions were reckless, making public secret information, without fully understanding what she was releasing. Rick’s (2013) says that in comparison Snowden chose to disclose specific government programs which appalled him.

The society for computing professionals in America is The Association of Computing Machinery (ACM). The ACM’s (1992) code of ethics and professional conduct affirms an obligation to protect fundamental human rights and avoid harm to others. Furthermore, it directly states that it is the responsibility of professionals to maintain the privacy and integrity of individuals. This would indicate that Snowden was justified to bring the NSA’s procedures to light under the ACM’s code of ethics which states to respect the privacy of others, implying that only necessary amounts of personal information should be collected.

The Snowden documents also affect British citizens as many documents refer to our governments own GCHQ and the methods used by them in collecting data. Snowden reported upon similar actions that the UK government were carrying out on its own citizens and those of foreign countries. The British Computing Society’s (BCS) (2016) Code of Conduct expresses similar views to that of the ACM in that members should have regard for the privacy and security of others. However, both the ACM and the BCS provide clauses which advise member to avoid situations that may give rise to conflict of interests between themselves and their clients and that they should make full disclosure to the client if they feel that a situation exists. Therefore, according to the codes of conduct Snowden should have brought the situation to the attention of his contracting company, Booz Allen Hamilton. Indeed, Booz Allen Hamilton have their own ethics policies as stated in their Green Book (2015, p.6) which explains that in the event of an ethical issue it directs their employees to various resources. It seems that Snowden did not follow any of these directions.

The British Government also confirms various avenues of redress in their whistleblowing guidance literature (2015). This provides a complete list of prescribed persons that employees can approach to air their concerns in the event that the person is not able to approach their own employer.

Snowden’s actions can be looked at from various ethical stand points. Stanford University (2014) states that utilitarianism was a theory proposed by English philosophers Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873).  According to Quinn (2015) utility is the tendency to create happiness or prevent unhappiness. Quinn explains that utilitarianism is based upon utility and is a consequentialist theory as it focuses on the consequences of an action rather than the action itself. Quinn continues to explain that Utilitarianism can be split between two methods, Act utilitarianism and Rule utilitarianism

Warren (2016) explains that “act utilitarianism” evaluates singular actions making a person ask the question “will this action bring the greatest happiness” ? Warren further explains that “rule utilitarianism” requires general rules to be followed no matter what the consequences. For example, “Cheating is always bad”. Warren expounds on this point by arguing that what if cheating in an exam brought about happiness? Rule utilitarianism does not worry about the circumstances; the general rule would be that it is wrong to cheat because in the main it would bring about greater unhappiness overall.

In a utilitarian sense, Camero (2015) argues Edward Snowden acted in a “rule utilitarian” way, believing that no one would approve a rule that allows governments to spy on their own citizens. The consequences of which would undermine public trust in the government. Camero continues to explain that if Snowden had behaved in an “Act utilitarian” way his thought processes would have been more complex. For instance, if he felt that the overall consequences of the government spying on their own citizens produced greater good then he may have kept quiet about the whole subject. Snowden’s decision would have failed the “act” utilitarian ethos due to the large amount of unhappiness it created in the general public, the NSA and Snowden himself.

From an ethics perspective Camero (2015) recognizes that the NSA acted in a “Act” utilitarianism sense believing that their actions would keep the nation safe from terrorism if they were able to keep the nation ignorant of their means of doing so and thus avoiding unhappiness. However, Camero believes that the “rule” utilitarianism ethos proved to be more suited for the NSA as the negative outcomes that were eventually incurred was due to them ignoring the moral rule about deception.

Quinn (2015) explains that Utilitarianism requires the calculation of working out how many people are negatively affected against how many are positively affected, i.e. “The Greater Good”. It is possible that Edward Snowden felt that for all the good that the NSA projects was having, the negative effects were far worse for the greater number of people. The Utilitarian philosophy explains Edward Snowden’s actions from a moral perspective and can be seen as well intentioned towards the public at large.

Kantian ethics was first philosophized by Immanuel Kant (1724- 1804) who the BBC (2014) arguably portrays as one of the greatest philosophers of all time. The BBC (2014) explains that Kant believed that human beings have the ability to make informed moral decisions free from authority and that all rational beings should obey simple moral laws independent of their consequences.  This ethical perspective is therefore in direct competition with utilitarianism which requires that we examine the consequences of our actions.  Jankowiak (2014) states that Kant believed in a Categorical Imperative which is a rule that is true in all circumstance. Jankowiak explains that Kant’s philosophy requires a person always acts in such a way that the person would be willing for their act to become a general law without exception. The BBC (2014) provides an example which asks whether there should be a universal rule that says its ok to break promises. In certain situations, it may be advisable to break a promise yet this would not be in keeping with the Kantian ethos as no one would wish there to be a universal rule stating that it is always ok to break promises. Snowden’s ethics could be looked at from a Kantian point of view arguing that he followed a categorical imperative of “never spy on people” and disregarded the consequences of his actions as per Kant’s philosophy.

Gaskill (2007) points out the problem with Kant’s theory is that any rule can be specified in a way that’s takes the particular situation into account, for example, taking the above statement of “never spy on people” we could add “unless it is for the safety of your country”. This rule could be turned into a Categorical Imperative as it is likely that all citizens of every country would be inclined to keep their country safe from attack by foreign powers.

Casino (2015) exclaims the impact of Snowden’s documents has been globe shattering, British secret services have been hauled up to testify in front of parliament, the German government has cut all ties with Verizon the phone company that provided the NSA with access to all phone conversations. Other American companies such as Boeing have seen contracts discontinued by the German government. There has been a large rise in the use of encryption and start-up companies specialising in privacy and according to the Guardian (2014) a pentagon report admits that the amount of compromised knowledge in the Snowden documents was staggering.

The US Presidents speech (2014) acknowledges that mistakes were made, but tries to justify the actions taken. The events of 9/11 spurred the agencies into a need for gathering far more information than they currently were and the President explains that if they had had access to the information they are now able to access it is likely that they would have caught the perpetrators before they had committed their evil deeds. The President argues that the data collected is not being abused and recognizes that there are real enemies and threats that must be countered and that intelligence agencies such as the NSA play vital roles. Should another 9/11 event happen, questions will be asked of those that are paid to protect their peoples. However, the president has put in place new presidential directives to not only take into account security requirements but also alliances, trade and investment relationship, the concerns of American companies and a commitment to privacy and liberties under a new USA Freedom Act (2015) . Meanwhile Roberts & Ackerman (2015) report that investigations continue, a landmark decision by the Appeals court rules the collection of millions of phone records unlawful and clears the way for challenges against the NSA

Three years on Wenger (2016) writes that having spoken to top former NSA officials, cybersecurity experts and privacy advocates the information released by Snowden becomes less relevant with each passing year.  Grave issues still exist about privacy, intelligence and national security and a massive loss in trust has opened up between the government and technology industries. Britain’s courts have also ruled that GCHQ’s bulk collection program contravened Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights according to Brandom (2016). The Daily Mail (2015) reports that the UK Government has now changed the Computer Misuse Act which relates to GCHQ’s illegal activities and it now provides them with more protection to carry on these activities.

The crux of this matter revolves around whether Snowden first of all tried to bring the matters to light through the official channels. There is disagreement about this between Ledgett and Snowden and a lack of proof that Snowden did so would come down in favour of Ledgett    and the NSA. Both the BCS and the ACM require conflict of interests to be brought to the matter of the client. However, The ACM (1992) also states that all members must obey existing laws unless there is an ethical basis not to do so and that compliance must be balanced with a recognition that immoral rules or laws should be challenged.

Kantian Ethics and Rule utilitarianism ethics are fairly similar, both like to follow general rules, the difference being that Rule Utilitarianism follows general rules to bring about the greater good whilst Kant follows general rules because they are morally right independent of the outcome. It could be said that Snowden was acting in both a Kantian ethos, as he was following a critical imperative of never to spy on people, and a Rule utilitarianism ethos if he felt that the greater good was to inform the people of the actions of NSA.

History shows that people who have followed orders from those in authority whilst disregarding their own morals can face serious repercussions. for example, Clinton (2011) reports Adolph Eichmann, chief administrator of the Nazi holocaust tried to distort the Kantian philosophy in his defence explaining that he was only following the orders of his Fuhrer who would approve of it. However, Clinton describes this Kantian view of the holocaust as being “absurd” as it fails to follow Kant’s “Golden Rule”. The Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (2014) states The Golden Rule of Kantian philosophy is mutual respect and not to do anything to others that you wouldn’t like being done to yourself, i.e. reciprocity. Eichmann was sentenced to death and hanged in 1962 according to the Guardian Newspaper (2012). This shows a rather extreme repercussion a person can face when his excuse for carrying out the things he does is “I was only following orders” however it does show that Snowden was right to think about the morality of his actions in the NSA and question the ethics.

The Whitehouse.gov (2013) has an ongoing petition asking to pardon Edward Snowden which has been signed by 168000 people however President Obama has replied stating Snowden should come home and face up to what he has done. According to a statement on the Whitehouse.gov (2013) website President Obama feels he is hiding behind an authoritarian regime and he should do the right thing which is to come home and be judged by a jury. The president Elect, Donald Trump’s views on Snowden seem to be in line with Obama’s if not even more voracious, Trumps tweets have mentioned using his “friendship” with Putin to ask that Russia return Snowden to face justice and further tweets from Trump have noted that in the past spy’s faced execution. It seems very unlikely that a pardon will be granted by Trump or Obama. However, Durden (2016) believes that Trump is a person who can quickly change his mind when he finds it is against the popular vote.

Ethics aside, a government contractor signs many documents which pledge him not to reveal client information. There are many instructions from professional societies, contracting firms and Government documents which layout the procedures to take in the event of a conflict of Interest. Snowden should have made more of an effort to follow these procedures ensuring documents and emails were available that backed up his story and that he had tried all the official channels. He had the skills to secrete thousands of secret documents but not his own paper trail? This does seem either a large oversight on his part or the documents do not exist.

To conclude, Snowden was perhaps correct to be concerned over the actions of the NSA however the way he went about bringing it all to the attention of the Media and general public was utterly wrong and seems no better than a person who uses the might of Social Media to attack others. Berman (2016) has a point, perhaps it’s not just the NSA that is at risk of having their secrets released but anyone could be punished by cyber adept bullies who do so in a fit of self-righteousness.




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